A flotilla of comedy heavyweights took the stage at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night for the 8th annual Stand Up for Heroes comedy benefit, capped by an acoustic performance by Bruce Springsteen.
The event was both the kickoff for the 2014 New York Comedy Festival and a benefit for the Bob Woodruff Foundation — founded by the journalist who was critically injured in Iraq in 2006 and his wife. The organization raises funds to assist in medical bills for returning service members.
After Woodruff delivered a roll call (followed by a lengthy, sustained standing ovation) for the dozens of men and women in uniform bunched up at the front of the audience, Jon Stewart strolled onstage to begin the revue. “We honor heroes,” Stewart said, “and then we bring out schmucks. That’s great.”
After gags about his kids’ Halloween costumes, Stewart took on the election results. “It’s not just that the Republicans won. It’s more like they skull fucked the Democrats in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen happen,” he said. “What happened to Obama? He used to be about hope and change. Now he’s, like, ‘Ah, fuck that.'”
Acknowledging the vets in the audience, Stewart said, “It is so rare that you get to perform for an audience that is so clearly this much better than yourself.”
He was followed by Jim Gaffigan — who talked about eating too many donuts on tour, and “Last Week Tonight’s” John Oliver, who riffed on the things that make America unique.
“This is a nation of faith,” Oliver teased. “You believe in things in this country, and those things either happen — in which case you’re right — or they don’t happen and you keep believing in them anyway! You can’t compete with that!” Oliver was followed by a deeply, meticulously raunchy set from Louis C.K.
The evening also boasted a number of explicit shoutouts to New Jersey. NBC’s Brian Williams gave a glowing introduction to “a young, promising entertainer“ with something “very special, very unique about him and about his voice” who would turn out to be General Martin “Marty” Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Gen. Dempsey exclaimed that “The Freedom Tower is back open for business!” before tearing into his rendition of the Sinatra classic “New York, New York”, with accompaniment by his wife Deanie on piano. Audience members rose to clap the four-star general along.
Thereafter, the Woodruffs returned to feature a brief talk with Capt. Derek Herrera, who came onstage sporting a pair of robotically assisted legs despite having been paralyzed from the chest down in 2012. Herrera explained he was using a just-patented exoskeleton developed by ReWalk Robotics, to yet another round of cascading applause.
“A lot of people have asked me how to help veterans,” Herrera said, “and I talk a lot about this with fellow veterans. It’s something people struggle with, the transition. What I found is that every single veteran has put their life on the line, sacrificed, you come home, you don’t always see that from people in the military. All we want to see is some small sign you’re invested in seeing this country succeed.”
“What I say is, money and donations are great, but my challenge to you is: go home and be a beacon of inspiration. Take action and inspire others to action. It doesn’t have to be money….. Because now, more than ever, that’s what our veterans need and our nation needs.”
Lydia Fenet of Christie’s Auction House came out next, essentially holding the evening’s main-course event — Springsteen’s live set — hostage, gleefully, until she raised $1 million from the audience.
Finally, Stewart returned, rewarded the audience for their dedication to the cause — “Would you like some more entertainment!?” — before introducing The Boss to a roaring standing ovation, with “Born To Run” packaged as the quintessential New Jersey anthem.
Between performances of tracks like “Dancing In The Dark” and “Working On The Highway,” Springsteen dropped jokes that sent the Madison Square Garden audience into routinely exasperated stitches.
Fenet returned onstage at the evening’s end, teaming up with Springsteen to auction off his guitars with the rock legend adding new prizes in quick succession: “a lasagna dinner at my house.” Then a guitar lesson. Then later, “a ride around the block in the sidecar of my motorcycle.” They managed to raise $300,000 for all that plus Springsteen’s shirt.